Thursday, January 07, 2010

Maintenance of Effort is a Smart Law

By Eric Luedtke.

As a teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extraordinary children. But some of their parents have been just as extraordinary. Year after year, I’ve met parents who will do anything to give their child every opportunity for success, despite their circumstances. Some of them work two and three jobs to keep food on the table. Many come home after long days at work and sit down to help their children with their homework. One in particular sticks in my mind, a parent who told me that they had given up taking medication for a chronic medical condition for over a year in order to keep their kids fed, housed, and clothed. It is an amazing commitment and a deep and abiding love that parents like these show to their children.

In too many places, though, it’s a commitment that is not mirrored by our government. We let far too many children fall through the cracks. Too many go hungry. Too many who are in need of services for basic health care, mental health, and developmental disabilities do not get them. And in too many parts of our country, children attend school in overcrowded, dilapidated buildings where teachers don’t have access to basic supplies and are paid so little that they are as much martyrs as professionals.

Maryland, however, is different.

When we passed the Thornton legislation, our state made what can only be described as a profound promise to the children of our state. The philosophical underpinning of Thornton is simple: that no matter the economic circumstances, no matter the shifting winds of politics, we would provide the money necessary to give a high quality education to every child in Maryland. There are few places in America that have made such a promise. And it is a promise that has had enormous impact. It is one reason why our schools are ranked first in the country.

So it’s been somewhat sad to observe the debate about maintenance of effort over the past few months. It’s sad because the deep philosophical commitment to education that is the underpinning of the Thornton law seems to have become lost in rhetoric about budgets, recessions, and decision-making authority as applied to the maintenance of effort provision. So much so that our County Executive was quoted in reporting about the Committee for Montgomery breakfast in December as calling it a “stupid law.” Now, I understand that politicians are sometimes misquoted by the press, and that the heat of political discourse sometimes leads people to say things they regret. But the law is not stupid. It may need some tweaks, but labeling the idea of making the same basic commitment to kids from year to year “stupid” is at the very least poor word choice. It’s not stupid to provide a good education to kids.

Some of our political leaders are genuinely seeking changes that might make the maintenance of effort law more fair. They’ve suggested giving penalties to county governments rather than school systems; it makes no sense to penalize a school system because their county council has not voted to give them adequate resources. They’ve suggested waiving this year’s penalties on Montgomery County until that provision is fixed. These ideas make sense.

But make no mistake, among the politicians advocating changes in the maintenance of effort law are those who simply lack political courage and commitment, who are unwilling to make the difficult case for maintaining the quality of our schools even in difficult times. And while it’s a difficult case to make, while it will require tough decisions to meet maintenance of effort, maintenance of effort is a relatively low bar – it does not even require that counties account for inflation. In fact, because our maintenance of effort law is pegged to what our effort currently is, rather than what our effort should be, the case can be made that it is not a strong enough legal requirement to meet the true needs of our kids.

In the end, the situation we face as supporters of quality education in Montgomery County is dire. Too many of our politicians are seeking changes in the law because of short-term economic pressures, forgetting the long-term reasoning behind the law. And if the cuts that they seem to think are necessary go through, they absolutely will have an effect on our kids. The school system’s budget is far beyond the point where there is fat to cut.

The fact is that without maintenance of effort, we will be doing less for our community’s children next year than we did this year. Is that really a precedent that we want to set?

Eric Luedtke is a teacher at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 12,000 educators in Montgomery County Public Schools.